MADRID — Atletico Madrid’s players will have to deal with the weight of history when they run out against a much more experienced Chelsea side in Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal first leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Atletico are at this stage of the competition for the first time in forty years, while also on course to win a first La Liga crown since 1996, topping the table by four points with just four games remaining.
Meanwhile, Chelsea are making their seventh UEFA Champions League semifinal appearance in the last 11 years, and have Champions League expert Jose Mourinho in charge, looking to save his season after their recent Premier League wobble.
But Colchoneros club captain and midfielder Gabi Fernandez says he and his men can handle the situation.
“Atletico can deal with the pressure, and all the praise too,” Gabi said. “We have our feet on the ground because we are more motivated than anyone, I do not know if more capable, but for sure more motivated. The team is prepared for this, we know we have not won anything yet.”
The CL’s final four is also new for Atletico coach Diego Simeone, who has a similarly intense approach and tactical brain to Mourinho, but whose experience as a player and coach has been in the [much] less prestigious UEFA Cup and Europa League.
“We are not the same team [as Chelsea] but we have similar characteristics. We are both the least scored against teams in our respective leagues, we both have good defenses and we both play a direct attacking game, ” Simeone noted at Monday’s press conference.
Simeone is also not one to step back from a challenge, and has a full squad to choose from, with nobody banned and Turkish playmaker Arda Turan back in full training. The Argentine is still likely to keep faith with both David Villa and Raul Garcia after outstanding displays in the quarterfinal second-leg win over Barcelona two weeks ago.
Atletico’s top scorer Diego Costa missed that game with a thigh muscle problem, and then suffered a deep cut to his shin when he returned to La Liga action the following weekend. Costa, however, proved his fitness when netting a penalty in Friday’s 2-0 La Liga win at home to Elche, and his pace and power on the counter-attack will be vital against Chelsea.
“Mourinho’s team are very well prepared tactically and will come to play their game,” Gabi says. “We have to counteract their game with our game, and look for Diego [Costa] down the wings. The team whose plan is most successful will win.”
Less likely to begin the game is Chelsea center-forward Fernando Torres, who joined Atletico’s youth system aged just 11, then scored almost 100 goals for the senior side before leaving for Liverpool in 2007.
“I am not saying that Fernando Torres will start,” Mourinho said at Monday’s press conference. “I have no doubts that the minutes he will be on the pitch tomorrow he will do everything for Chelsea given the professional that he is.”
The 2014-version Torres, now 30 and far from the confident sprinter who terrorized defenses in his youth, is nevertheless guaranteed a special welcome from the home fans.
“For all Atleticos it will be very special to see Torres playing here,” according to the team’s current midfielder Mario Suarez. “He has been an idol for us. If he plays I hope he has a really bad game, but can enjoy himself afterwards.”
Torres’ time at Atletico included a spell in the second division, with the club in turmoil both on and off the pitch. Their slow rise back to Europe’s elite included a painful Champions League campaign in 2009/10, when they were hammered 4-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the group stages. But a happier recent memory for Colchoneros fans is the 2012 UEFA Super Cup meeting when Radamel Falcao’s first-half hat-trick brought a 4-1 victory.
Thibaut Courtois, who remains contracted to Chelsea, played in that meeting and has remained at the Calderon on loan. While UEFA say the Belgian goalkeeper must be free to play against his ‘parent’ club, local press reports claim Atletico must pay 3 millions euros per game for that to happen.
Courtois was needed in last Friday’s tight win over Elche, with his teammates apparently distracted by the looming Chelsea tie. Atletico did not play so well but once again found a way to win. The key opening goal coming from a center-half heading in a corner – just as the previous week at Getafe.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s domestic title chances took a dive with Saturday’s shock 1-2 home reverse to Sunderland. Atletico fans were lifted by that result, but they will have recognized Mourinho’s angry reaction from the Portuguese’s three years across town at Real Madrid, and a backlash is feared.
All of which means Simeone’s up and coming side really need a positive result on Tuesday, to give it something to defend in next week’s second leg in London. Playmaker Diego Ribas says the 55,000 capacity stadium will have a key role to play.
“We have to take advantage of the force of the Calderon,” Diego said. “This special atmosphere helps us so much.”